Opinionista Helen Zille 17 September 2018

From the Inside: Identity politics is destroying freedom

Now and again, young people are gripped by ideologies that close down freedoms. It is important to be able to identify these tendencies early, especially when they involve the latest iteration of race fanaticism that seeks to turn minorities into scapegoats for broader societal and governmental failings. We know where that inevitably leads.

I’m a junior reporter, 42 years ago, in the Rand Daily Mail newsroom. A senior colleague from Soweto is sharing first-hand accounts of his experiences of June 16, 1976, the day students took to the streets in protest against Afrikaans-medium instruction in schools.

He describes how a white woman, driving on the outskirts of Soweto, finds herself surrounded by a seething crowd banging on her car bonnet. So she rolls down the window and yells: “I’m British, I’m British”.

It’s her way of saying: “I may be white, but I’m not one of THEM” – as if this will liberate her from the encircling fury.

Its relevance to this column is its application to Henk Botha and Bradley Slade (two law professors from Stellenbosch University) who wrote an article that metaphorically shouted “we’re woke, we’re woke” to the proponents of identity politics closing in menacingly on campuses countrywide.

For the uninitiated, the word “woke”, the past tense of “wake”, derives from African-American slang, and is used to describe (among other things) a “good white”. Or a “good male”.

To qualify for this accolade, one needs to accept that people have fixed identities, primarily based on biology, that divide them into categories of “oppressor” and “oppressed”.

If you are both white and male, you are, by definition, an oppressor. The oppressed, on the other hand, can be variously classified. Apart from race and sex, there is sexual orientation, disability, sometimes even religion, or any combination of these.

Identity politics defines the world as a struggle between the oppressors and the rest. The worth of a person’s ideas is determined by their “identity” as an “authentic representative” of an oppressed category. Subjective feelings and fixed dogmas replace Enlightenment values of empiricism and open-mindedness.

This approach originated on American campuses and spread with astonishing speed to universities across the English-speaking world, including South Africa. The dialectic method, which evolved over four centuries as the preferred method in the quest for “truth” across institutions of higher learning in democracies worldwide, is now being subsumed by ill-defined demands for “radical decolonisation”.

The power of identity politics lies in its glorification of victimhood. The result is a society that fractures into smaller and smaller collectives, each with its own unique claim to oppression. The greatest moral power belongs to those who claim multiple biological victimhoods.

A topical real-life example of identity-politics-in-action unfolded in graphic detail on our television screens recently when one of the world’s richest and most influential sportswomen, Serena Williams, claimed to be fighting racism and sexism by throwing a public tantrum, breaking a tennis racket, and flouting the rules of her sport because they were imposed by a white, male umpire.

To describe her behaviour as inexcusable and unsportsmanlike would be considered an outrage (definitely un-woke) by proponents of identity politics. Never mind that Serena’s meltdown ruined the well-deserved victory of another woman of colour, far less powerful or rich than she is.

The “reality” of the situation was defined by the “lived experience” of a black woman who experienced herself as a victim. The very worst sin in the pantheon of identity politics is to offend, or deepen the “pain” of someone who views herself as a victim.

Which brings me back to Botha and Slade.

I don’t recall having met either of them, but they are, by biological definition, oppressors. Their role is therefore confined to hand-wringing solidarity with the “lived experience” of the oppressed, starting with the vocabulary they use.

Stellenbosch University’s transformation office has helpfully published a lexicon of acceptable words and phrases as a guide for academic departments in a booklet called Talking Transformation.

A group of students from the Dagbreek residence saw right through this attempt to entrench “through the use of language, a world-view intolerant of alternative analysis or challenge”. They authored an alternative guide to language, called Talking Freedom and invited me to speak at its launch. In both my speech and a subsequent article, I was pretty scathing about the various manipulative manifestations of identity politics.

So Botha and Slade stepped in to defend the “victims” of my critique.

Why does this matter? Why am I even bothering to respond?

It matters because their analysis informs a far wider discourse which is seeping into society like ink on dry blotting paper. There is an unquenchable thirst, both on and off our campuses, for the status of victimhood, which confers real power within the framework of identity politics.

The inimitable Lionel Shriver puts it this way: “Radiating rapidly from campuses into the larger polity, the noble defence of an infinitely multiplying list of ‘marginalised groups’ is a predatory movement. Prowling the cultural veld for givers of ‘offence’ is a blood sport, and its pleasures are those of hunting: spotting your prey, stalking, going in for the kill. Any source of umbrage thus presents an exulting opportunity to score a trophy, stuff it, and hang it on your (Facebook) wall.

In short, identity politics is destroying freedom.

The definition of freedom I use, and which I re-stated in my campus address, is broad and encompassing. It is “the right, the space, the opportunity and the wherewithal to live a life you value”.

Until recently, I thought it was wide enough. The brilliant historian and social commentator, Yuval Noah Harari, has convinced me that it falls short because it does not take account of the influence of social media.

Far from extending our freedoms through open communication and connectivity, social media have made us vulnerable to far-reaching manipulation. Every time we go online, algorithms interpret the choices we make, computing our susceptibilities, preconceptions, and vulnerabilities. This enables social and political manipulators to target specific individuals with tailor-made messages, to influence their behaviour and decisions.

New industries have emerged (such as troll farms) – where thousands of fake social media accounts are harnessed to influence both public analysis and individual choice. Consultancies, such as Cambridge Analytica, even offered this service to swing election outcomes.

A mere 3,000 fake accounts operated from a troll farm in Russia allegedly profoundly affected public perceptions and voting choices in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that social media are the preferred hunting ground for the purveyors of identity politics. Their method is to track a target, by tooth-combing their words, past and present, in search of any violation of their dogmatic narrative.

When they locate a “thought crime”, the hunting pack moves quickly, to isolate the violator from their support network, manipulating their words for the purpose of maximising outrage, and turning them into a public pariah. The next step is to conduct a show trial by media, demand an apology, press for surrender, and if possible drive their target out of employment, either by forcing a resignation or a dismissal.

The whole cycle, which I have seen repeated again and again, is actually a vicious violation of human rights from which the Constitution is supposed to protect us.

But Professors Botha and Slade contend that the Constitution both justifies and defends the protagonists of identity politics.

I have just one question, professors. Why do you disbelieve them when they publicly reject the Constitution as a “fundamentally racist” document which “violently preserves the status quo”?

This full frontal attack on the Constitution appears in a document which may be regarded as a collective manifesto for “identitarianism” presented at a mass meeting of Fallists shortly before the removal of the Rhodes Statue at the University of Cape Town. The protests then spread to other campuses including Stellenbosch.

To use an analogy: If Eugene Terre’Blanche told these professors that he was racist, would they analyse his stance and conclude otherwise? Would they say: “No, don’t believe him. He sounds racist but he is only talking tough”?

Of course they wouldn’t.

So why patronise the purveyors of identity politics (of which Fallism is the vanguard) by refusing to take them at their word regarding their contempt for the Constitution?

I, for one, believe them. I have seen them in action. And I have personal experience of being targeted in their pack hunts.

(I also fundamentally disagree with the professors’ interpretation of section 9.2 of the Constitution, but this debate is too academic to unpack here. Let’s take it offline.)

It only remains for me to address their point about power relations at Stellenbosch. Students of every generation challenge established power structures until, sooner than they expect, they find they are middle-aged and challenged by the next generation.

It’s the circle of life. And it (usually) drives the wheel of progress.

But, now and again, young people are gripped by ideologies that reverse progress and close down freedoms. It is important to be able to identify these tendencies early, especially when they involve the latest iteration of race fanaticism that seeks to turn minorities into scapegoats for broader societal and governmental failings. We know where that inevitably leads.

It is hardly heroic, at times like this, to use injustices of the past to pump up a self-righteous analytical froth in order to justify oppressive ideologies and pretend they can offer a solution.

It is time for universities to start analysing the real barriers to progress, especially of marginalised groups, and to allow the empirical evidence to take them wherever it leads, instead of slavishly following America’s latest lunacies in the name of “decolonisation”. DM

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